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‘He doesn’t act like he’s young’: At 31, Sean McVay must turn around the Rams

IRVINE, Calif. — Standing in the middle of a field following a Los Angeles Rams’ training camp practice, Sean McVay was talking to reporters about the progress he has seen in his early days as the youngest head coach in modern NFL history. And a fan screaming from behind the ropes along the nearest sideline really wanted McVay to sign an autograph.

“Sean, over here!” the man yelled. “Come over here, Sean! Sean, pleeeassse!”

The Rams, it seems, are equally emphatic with what they’re imploring McVay to do: Pleeeassse make second-year quarterback Jared Goff worthy of the top overall pick in last year’s NFL draft spent on him. And pleeeassse make this team worthy of the lavish $2.6 billion Inglewood, Calif., stadium in which it will play beginning in the 2020 season, the centerpiece of the sport’s bid to make its return to L.A. prosper following a two-decade-plus absence.

That’s all.

Not too much to ask, is it, from a 31-year-old?

“It’s a pretty humbling and flattering thing to be in this place, to be in this situation,” McVay said this past week. “I’m very excited. You feel blessed. It’s one of those things where you wake up and you almost kind of pinch yourself because you can’t believe you do this for a living.”

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The Rams made history in January when they hired McVay, until then the offensive coordinator of the Washington Redskins under Coach Jay Gruden. At 30 years, 11 months, McVay was nine months younger than Lane Kiffin when the Oakland Raiders hired him in 2007.

Yet it has not taken long for Rams players to view McVay not as a uniquely youthful head coach, but as a guy firmly in charge.

“The way he carries himself, the way he does things, how he sets the meetings and really kind of sets the tone of how we’re gonna do things and [how] the rules are gonna go as followed, I think in that way, the way he does this, I don’t think any guy sees him as anything other than their head ball coach,” said offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth, who is four years older than his boss.

“He does a tremendous job of handling the room. When you coach football, there are some guys that just can’t handle the room. And he does a tremendous job of handling the room. I would say guys are very uplifted, very prepared to go out and play for him.”

The Rams haven’t had a winning season since 2003. They fired Jeff Fisher, McVay’s predecessor, last December with three games left in a 4-12 season. Clearly, McVay arrived with much work to be done.

“After I met him, I totally bought into his view and how he wanted to view this team,” veteran guard Rodger Saffold said. “Now I see great things in the future for him. We just need to all buy into his mentality. … It’s definitely a difference. But he doesn’t act like he’s young. He’s very mature, very smart. He’s been around the game a long time. You have to respect him.”

Things have not always worked out well for NFL head coaching prodigies. The list of those hired as head coaches before age 35 includes Super Bowl winners such as John Madden, Don Shula, Jon Gruden, Bill Cowher and Mike Tomlin. But others on that list such as Kiffin, Josh McDaniels and Eric Mangini had far less success.

McVay seemed to improve his chances of thriving immensely when he hired Wade Phillips as his defensive coordinator. The 70-year-old Phillips is one of the most accomplished defensive coaches in NFL history. He also has 146 games of NFL head coaching experience, giving McVay a resource for his on-the-job training.

“The one thing that’s been a little bit different is you’re still involved in the offense but still trying to make sure you’re — not involved because you’ve got Wade doing a great job with the defense — but you’re mindful of what’s going on so you can communicate with your players in their language,” McVay said. “You can be aware of what Coach [John] Fassel is doing with the special teams, just making sure that you’re not just an offensive coach but you’re trying to be a head coach and building and developing those relationships with the players and the entire coaching staff. It’s been great so far.”

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McVay has outside-the-building resources as well. He said he has remained in touch with Jon and Jay Gruden; McVay began his NFL tenure as a 22-year-old offensive assistant on Jon Gruden’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers staff in 2008. McVay mentions the friendships he has forged with Tomlin and Miami Dolphins Coach Adam Gase.

McVay talks of empowering his offensive coordinator, Matt LaFleur, and his quarterbacks coach, Greg Olson. But while McVay must learn to delegate responsibilities and coach of all the players, not only those on the offense, he also knows that he will be judged in large part on the development of Goff, who threw seven interceptions and struggled to a woeful passer rating of 63.6 in his seven starts last season as a rookie. McVay will call plays for the Rams.

He has the round-the-clock work ethic of a football lifer because that’s precisely what he is. He is the grandson of John McVay, one of the primary architects of the San Francisco 49ers’ dynasty in the 1980s and ‘90s as a front office executive. Sean McVay was a standout quarterback and defensive back in high school in Georgia who played wide receiver in college at the Ohio’s Miami University.

He is polished beyond his years, having mastered the coach-speak art of talking a lot while revealing little. But he is finding out, as so many others have, that things are different in the big chair. There are tough, unsentimental decisions that must be made. There is a different sort of relationship with players and other coaches to be forged. There are media obligations and marketing campaigns. There is a team owner to answer and a general manager with whom to collaborate. There is a win-loss record that goes by your name.

Yes, there is plenty to learn for Sean McVay, even after the many football lessons he already has crammed into his 31 years.

“Everybody really kind of tells you that until you get into the role, you can’t ever really anticipate the amount of things that come across your desk,” McVay said. “And that’s absolutely been true. You’ve got to be able to manage the different things and react accordingly. … I think the real test is gonna be for us when you get into the games and inevitably at some point when we face adversity, how we’re able to respond and try to stay connected through that.”

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